Positively Shady

The glamorous activism of M.A.C Cosmetics

Once upon a time, gay liberation meant anti-­capitalist, anti-­racist, anti-police, anti-­colonial rage. The bad boy (and some bad girl) heroes of the Stonewall Riots, fifty years ago this summer, linked gay visibility to global anti-­colonial struggles. The Gay Liberation Front sought the abolishment of existing social institutions, including capitalism, militarism, racism, and the nuclear family. The term “liberation” tied the GLF to other radical social movements of the late 1960s, including Black Power, women’s liberation, and such anti-­colonial forces as Ho Chi Minh’s National Liberation Front in Vietnam. In Canada, gay activists marched on Ottawa in 1971, demanding workplace equality and changes in the Criminal Code, divorce law, and so on. Toronto activists founded the gay liberation newspaper the Body Politic that same year. Oh, those were the days! It was a time when queer people cared about social justice and capitalist exploitation, a time before (white) gay men and lesbians sold out and went shopping.

This is a familiar lament in gay and lesbian history. It’s the declension narrative of so many studies that move from a pure, anti-­market and anti-­capitalist gay left to a homonormative present marked by matching tuxedos and renovated Cabbagetown Victorians. While I share this critique of contemporary single-­issue politics, I question the historical narrative on which it’s built. The market has always been intertwined with gay and lesbian history; in fact, some historians are now suggesting that twentieth-­century commercial culture made gay social activism possible. George Hislop, an important activist and politician who co-­organized the 1971 We Demand protest, co-­owned Toronto’s Spa Excess bathhouse. Jearld Moldenhauer, founder of Canada’s first gay student group, as well as a founding member of the Body Politic, owned Glad Day Bookshop, a gay haunt located in Toronto and, for a time, Boston. These folks may have been “reluctant capitalists,” to quote Moldenhauer, but they were nonetheless entrepreneurs whose businesses bankrolled social and political change.

Our reluctance to consider social movements in relation to the market has created a situation where we know very little indeed about the queer history of capitalism. Fortunately, this is beginning to change. Andrea Benoit’s excellent Viva M.A.C: AIDS, Fashion, and the Philanthropic Practices of M.A.C Cosmetics provides the first history of the global cosmetics brand founded by a gay Italian-­Canadian couple — both named Frank — in 1981. Benoit situates their business in relation to several overlapping fields, all of which have been in dire need of analysis, including the Toronto fashion scene in the 1980s, cause marketing, and HIV/AIDS in Canada. Given how much ink has been spilled on other cosmetics empires — from Max Factor to Revlon — it’s a head-­scratcher that no one has written this history before. Thanks to extensive oral histories by most of M.A.C’s key figures, as well as with journalists, makeup artists, fashion promoters, and other important Toronto scenesters, this lively narrative is a unicorn of a book: well researched and readable, with an compelling narrative arc.

Now a ubiquitous fixture in high-end shopping malls and consumer-­friendly airport terminals around the world, M.A.C Cosmetics emerged from Toronto’s queer entrepreneurial past. In the 1970s, young gay people created a parallel ­lavender economy where they could both be out and pay the bills. By founding bookstores, restaurants, and bathhouses, business owners did their best to make money while making good and supporting the “community.” These newly out entrepreneurs joined an older queer tradition of gay men, in particular, working in the velvet underground of the aesthetic industries — fashion, hair salons, interior decorating — where being gay was tolerated, so long as no one spoke about it publicly.

This “don’t ask, don’t tell” business culture began to shift in the 1980s, in the wake of both gay liberation and the AIDS crisis. A spectacular example, M.A.C Cosmetics was founded by two lovers, Frank Toskan and Frank Angelo, in 1984. Toskan, born in Italy, grew up in Toronto; Angelo, born in Montreal, moved to Toronto in 1969 and soon established the city’s first chain of unisex salons, the Haircutting Place, with thirty-­seven prime locations in Yorkville and elsewhere. The Franks met at one of Toronto’s storied clubs, the Manatee, in 1969. Toskan, a photographer at the time, opened a salon service to launder Angelo’s hair towels, while also photographing models, strippers, and drag queens in his beautiful launderette. With his creative and entrepreneurial eye, Toskan had noticed an Italian cosmetics line called Il‑Makiage, distinctive for its strong pigmentation and bright colours. Toskan opened a rented space on the second floor of the Simpsons department store, on Queen Street West, and incorporated Make‑up Art (Cosmetics) Limited in 1981. Around the same time, Toskan’s sister Julie was dating a first-year chemistry student at the University of Toronto, Victor Casale, who began experimenting with new salon formulas and, eventually, new cosmetic products. M.A.C was born.

M.A.C brought its queer, club-scene roots directly into the company’s business plan. The Franks didn’t advertise in fashion publications, because Toskan was repelled by normative cosmetics marketing and advertising, including the industry’s reliance on white, glamorous cover girls as brand spokespeople. As a result, fashion editors refused to credit M.A.C when stylists used the brand — a serious hit to M.A.C’s bottom line.

So the Franks took a different approach and marketed the company’s edgy products through a word-of-mouth network dependent on fashion insiders, who received a 40 percent discount. M.A.C’s salespeople were a far cry from the department store perfume-­spritzing counter girl: they came from Toronto’s gritty Queen West fashion, music, and arts scenes. These creative, queer, pierced, and tattooed representatives shared M.A.C’s offbeat sensibility, and Toskan cultivated their individuality as part of the brand.

Because of his makeup work with Gladys Knight, the American singer who was a friend, Toskan knew that women of colour had difficulty finding quality cosmetics that worked with various skin tones. His queer roots had also given him an appreciation for outrageous colour combinations and dense pigments, capable of covering drag queen stubble. When Toskan and Casale developed a new shade, like Russian Red in 1985, they would send it to professional makeup artists, such as Frances Hathaway, for feedback.

As Toskan and Casale hand-­pressed eyeshadows with electric, offbeat colours, Toronto’s fashion scene ignited. Together, designers, promoters, journalists, makeup artists, and models created a unique moment in the city’s history. The fashion designer Albert Sung partnered with the local garment manufacturers Joe and Saul Mimran in 1981. They opened their first Club Monaco location — selling classic, casual clothing — on Queen Street West four years later. The twins Dean and Dan Caten, now known as Dsquared2, debuted their first collection at Toronto’s Diamond Club that same year. Journalists such as Bernadette Morra and David Livingston covered fashion in the Toronto Star, Flare, and CityTV’s long-­running FashionTelevision, hosted by Jeanne Beker for twenty-­seven years. Steven Levy, founder of the twice-yearly One of a Kind Show, launched the Festival of Canadian Fashion in 1985, as a way to promote homegrown design. And Hathaway, who began her makeup career in Toronto in 1981, went on to use M.A.C Cosmetics on the model Jerry Hall, Princess Diana, and others.

These heady years coincided with the AIDS epidemic, which devastated the gay community — and by extension the fashion community. Most of Canada’s AIDS cases were in Toronto, and the city’s gay community organized quickly. The activists Michael Lynch and Ed Jackson co-­founded the AIDS Committee of Toronto in 1983; Casey House, Canada’s first free-­standing AIDS hospice, opened in 1986. During these years, as Benoit describes, provincial and federal support was nowhere to be found; even acknowledging the illness would be political suicide at a time when mainstream discourse pathologized queerness and conservative commentators considered death to be just deserts for depraved gay lifestyles. Jake Epp, the federal health minister from 1984 to 1989, did all he could to avoid actually saying the word “AIDS,” while in the U.S., president Ronald Reagan simply ignored the epidemic.* Radical groups such as New York’s ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and Toronto’s AIDS Action Now (AAN!) pressured government to commit funds to support individuals and medical research.

Devastated by deaths among designers, stylists, makeup artists, and others, the fashion industry rallied to raise funds for research and advocacy, with M.A.C Cosmetics playing a leading role. In London, the fashion publicist Lynne Franks organized the first major AIDS fashion fundraiser, Fashion Cares. The following year, Calvin Klein and Elizabeth Taylor co-­hosted, in New York, a glittering fundraiser for the American Foundation for AIDS Research, with the theme “To Care Is to Cure.”

In Toronto, the fashion wholesaler Syd Beder, the so-­called Pope of Queen Street, paired up with the designer Rick Mugford to organize an industry fundraiser. The result was Fashion Cares, an annual event for the AIDS Committee of Toronto that lasted a quarter century. The first show, in 1987, featured a black rubber long-­sleeved, short-­skirted “safe sex dress” created by Dean and Dan Caten — this at a time when the word “AIDS” was so scary that it was not even printed on the fundraising event’s promotional literature. M.A.C Cosmetics donated all the cosmetics, and the Franks, along with a small M.A.C team, applied all the makeup for the show’s thirty models. They also did many of the models’ science fiction hairstyles, crafted from mud and glass shards.

Commercially, M.A.C Cosmetics took off in the early 1990s. People magazine published a photograph of Madonna wearing one of M.A.C’s Cruelty Free Beauty T‑shirts. The model Linda Evangelista, Princess Diana, Michael Jackson, Cher, and other celebrities actively associated themselves with the brand.

The Franks opened their first stand-­alone boutique in the United States on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, ground zero for gay liberation. The drag icons RuPaul and Lady Bunny were “doormen.” Kevyn Aucoin, a renowned makeup artist, told Maclean’s that “everyone in the business considers M.A.C to be the cutting edge.” All the while, the Franks raised money for AIDS research and advocacy.

In 1991, they introduced a T‑shirt with gay, straight, and lesbian couples kissing, along with the slogan “Make up, make out, play safe.” They donated the proceeds to the Canadian AIDS Society and to the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS. In 1992, the same year the designer Oliviero Toscani introduced his controversial Benetton ad featuring David Kirby, an emaciated AIDS victim, on his deathbed, M.A.C Cosmetics created a deep-red lipstick called Viva Glam. The Franks donated 100 percent of the lipstick’s retail price — not just the profit margin — to AIDS organizations. Famously, RuPaul and eventually k. d. lang were the lipstick’s spokespeople. It’s hard to describe how outrageous it was at the time to feature a black drag queen and an out butch lesbian as cosmetic brand representatives. More than twenty-­five years later, the M.A.C AIDS Fund continues to raise millions of dollars annually, through the sale of Viva Glam products.

Benoit, who has a PhD in media studies from Western University, situates M.A.C’s AIDS fundraising in the context of cause marketing, a key aspect of corporate social responsibility. It’s an ethos that says businesses should satisfy social needs, not just earn a profit. As she points out, scholars like herself have critiqued campaigns such as Product (Red) for harnessing consumerism and celebrity culture to social issues, legitimating capitalism and increasing the sales that drive company profits. Benoit cites criticism of Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, levelled by the University of Toronto sociologists Judith Taylor and Josée Johnston, as “feminist consumerism.” In contrast, she argues, M.A.C’s fundraising has always been driven by non-­commercial goals.

Nonetheless, in 1994, the Franks sold 51 percent of their company to the cosmetics giant Estée Lauder for $38 million. They sold their remaining stake five years later. Many M.A.C employees saw this as betrayal. As one remembered, “I felt almost like a bullet was put through my heart.” But even before Toskan and Angelo sold the company to Lauder, M.A.C wasn’t a non-profit; rather, it was from the start a for-­profit business founded by two entrepreneurs who happened to be gay. In 1997, Angelo died suddenly, at forty-­nine, of complications arising from routine surgery. He had never come out to his family and did not leave a will. As a result, Toskan played no role in settling his partner’s affairs, even though they had been together for twenty-five years. Toskan went on to open several other businesses, including a clothing shop and, more recently, Impact Kitchen, a trendy fitness-­minded restaurant on Toronto’s King Street East.

Yes, M.A.C may be a neoliberal brand harnessing celebrity culture, but, at the same time, it is a site of subcultural authenticity and AIDS activism. It’s a hip brand that sells queer consumerism, sometimes for a good cause: collecting nearly $500 million for AIDS research and advocacy over the past twenty-­five years is a good cause.

Viva M.A.C reminds us that we live in neo­liberal times, when funds for AIDS research come from the private sector in the form of lipstick sales rather than from sufficient government funding. Personally, I don’t see a lot of difference between Dove’s Real Beauty and Estée Lauder’s Viva Glam campaigns. One traffics in feminist consumerism, the other in queer consumerism. Both promote a corporate image of responsible advertising practices that critique normative beauty while selling products that promise beauty. I’m drawn to M.A.C’s knowing wink at the absurdities of norm­core beauty regimes; its queer and trans-­positive salespeople succeed in making me feel a bit more welcome, if not beautiful. Somehow, probably because I am queer, M.A.C’s neoliberal brand logic seems more innocuous than Dove’s, even though of course it’s not. To paraphrase RuPaul, Viva Glam’s inaugural spokesmodel, in her 1993 breakout hit song, “Supermodel of the World,” it doesn’t matter what you do, because everything looks good on you.


*Correction:
 Previously, and in print, this review incorrectly identified Jake Epp as “Jack.”